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Community Wellness: EMDR helps 'unhook' clients from traumatic memory

Community Wellness: EMDR helps 'unhook' clients from traumatic memory

July 24, 2015

By Lisa Lubenow, LMSW, CAADC
Ionia County Community Mental Health

Posted Jul. 24, 2015 at 11:45 PM

When an individual experiences a trauma – from a single event, like a car accident, or multiple or more complex events, like sexual abuse – the emotional distress that results from the memory of the trauma can last far longer than physical pain caused by the trauma itself.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, is an evidence-based therapy that helps people get rid of their symptoms (such as flashbacks and bodily sensations) and emotional pain after a trauma. While EMDR can’t change what happened or eliminate the memory, it can help change the negative thoughts a person has because of that memory. It can help make the memory just a memory, and not a trigger.

EMDR has been used with adults and children to relieve emotional pain from many types of trauma. It is widely recognized as a treatment for post traumatic stress disorder, but can also be used for other treatments such as anger management. The only requirement is there has to be a memory associated with the traumatic event.

Trauma can be viewed as like breaking a leg and not healing properly. You can continue to walk around, but you will feel pain. Because of the untreated injury, the bone won’t completely heal. However, if you have a doctor re-break the leg and set it, while the leg will hurt in the beginning, it ultimately will heal and the pain will stop.

Similar steps occur with our brain after a trauma. The EMDR Institute ( explains it this way: “The brain’s information processing system naturally moves toward mental health. If the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a disturbing event, the emotional wound festers and can cause intense suffering. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. Using the detailed protocols and procedures learned in EMDR training sessions, clinicians help clients activate their natural healing processes.”

EMDR uses eye movements – my clients follow a light bar back and forth – or tapping or other tactile stimulation, such as tappers that vibrate in the palm of the client’s hand, to process the traumatic memory and help the client shift the thoughts, feelings and behavior they have assigned to the memory. The stimulation is “bilateral”: that is, it alternates from one side to the other, back and forth.

According to the EMDR Institute, “As this (the eye movements or tapping) happens, for reasons believed by a Harvard researcher to be connected with the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, internal associations arise and the clients begin to process the memory and disturbing feelings. In successful EMDR therapy, the meaning of painful events is transformed on an emotional level.”

Through EMDR therapy, the client begins to see a different, more positive and realistic interpretation of the traumatic event. For example, an event that convinced a client that “I am unloveable” could be processed and a new belief created: “I deserve love and affection.”

An individual in EMDR therapy can start with whatever memory they want to, and it doesn’t have to be the most difficult one. However, the brain is going to think of whatever memory it wants to, so they need to be ready to deal with whatever comes up. For that reason, this therapy is not recommended for clients who are actively suicidal or using substances.

EMDR has been used at Ionia County Community Mental Health with great success, and we have been able to complete services with some of our clients using it.

The EMDR Institute notes that some studies of the practice indicate 84-90 percent of single-trauma victims no longer had PTSD after just three 90-minute sessions. Another study found that 100 percent of the single-trauma victims and 77 percent of multiple trauma victims no longer were diagnosed with PTSD after only six 50-minute sessions. In another study, 77 percent of combat veterans were free of PTSD in 12 sessions.

To learn more about EMDR, call Ionia County Community Mental Health at 616-527-1790. For help with a mental health emergency, call the ICCMH 24-hour crisis line at 1-888-527-1790.